Image via PinkPistols.org.
Six months on from the mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School, America loves guns more than ever before. Manufacturers can’t churn them out fast enough to replace the ones flying off the shelves, and pro-gun rights groups have seen their membership numbers soar.
But if you thought you could spot a Second Amendment campaigner a mile away, think again. While Obama tries to work out how gun laws could change, some of his most vocal opposition has come from the least expected parts of American society: gay people, Jews, even mothers and grandmothers. Special interest gun groups are turning the stereotype of the white, conservative, straight, male gun lover on its head.
I meet Ken Polk on a steamy afternoon in Houston, Texas. Ken is a founding member of the Houston chapter of the Pink Pistols, the nationwide pro-gun group for gay people. Their aim: to encourage LGBT people to get trained and comfortable using firearms. Their motto: “Armed Gays Don’t Get Bashed.”
I’d wanted Ken to take me out shooting, but he’s running low on ammo and says the gun stores are all selling out nowadays. So we have an iced coffee instead.
“Every summer here in Houston there are people, mostly high school kids, who will come down here and harass gay people,” says Ken, 62, in his Texan drawl. “It could be nothing more than taunting – ‘Hey fag, hey queer,’ – maybe they’ll throw a beer bottle at someone. But if somebody is getting out of the car and there’s four of them and one of you, and you weigh 150lbs soaking wet after a full dinner, and these other guys look like they need to be playing football for the Green Bay Packers, you’ve got a problem.”
The Pink Pistols make their presence known at the 2011 LA Pride March. Photo by Rachel So.
Ken weighs a bit more than 150lbs. He has a round, soft body, with sandy blonde hair and a little boy’s face. There’s a pen tucked into the buttonholes of his grey polo shirt. He can rattle off crime statistics from the Bureau of Justice, knows state laws like the back of his hand, recommends blogs and books for my further enlightenment. It’s fair to call him a gun nerd.
“Guns help equalise,” he continues. “If you’re in a confrontation and it’s going south big time, if you have a firearm and you can brandish it, that will deescalate the situation fairly quickly.”
Unless they’re armed themselves, I say. What then?
There’s a long pause.
“That is a possibility,” Ken concedes. “I haven’t seen that yet. Most of the attacks that I’m aware of seem to be impulse attacks.”
The Pink Pistols’ philosophy is simple – if more gay people knew how to handle guns, and if gay people had a reputation for being able to defend themselves physically, then they’d be less likely to be picked on in the first place. The problem is the preconception homophobic thugs have about them. But, Ken says, it’s a preconception gay people often share, too.
“You have a lot of groupthink in a lot of gay organisations. If you’re gay, you are non-violent, you’re a liberal. We in the Pink Pistols want to show there is another way. You can still be non-violent, but you can protect yourself.”
Being part of the Pink Pistols is as much about socialising as learning how to handle a weapon. Local chapters meet at least once a month. “If you want to shoot, meet us at the shooting range,” says Ken. “If you just want to sit down and talk to us, make sure we’re not aliens, show up at steak night. We don’t care if you’re gay or straight. We’re just here to shoot and have a good time.”
I wonder if that could ever catch on in Old Compton Street.
“Jews can handle a gun just the same as anybody else,” says Charles Heller, Executive Director of the Jews for the Preservation of Firearms Ownership (JPFO). “In fact, we might even be better at reading the instruction manual.”
Founded in 1989, the JPFO are one of the oldest special interest gun groups in the US. They have 6,000 members across the country, and while you don’t have to be Jewish to join, as Charles says, “it doesn’t hurt”. They’re advised by an orthodox rabbi who checks that everything they do is in keeping with Jewish spiritual principle.
“We make the NRA look weak,” he boasts. “We’re far more hardline about the right to keep and bear arms than the NRA is. They will sit down at a table and compromise. We don’t.” I’m surprised to hear that, I say. American Jews are more traditionally associated with studying for exams than popping caps. Surely many don’t want any part of gun culture?
“It’s true that a lot of Jewish people are anti-freedom when it comes to guns,” Charles sighs. Jews are used to quietly obeying group rules and toeing the line, he says – think of the Ten Commandments. “We’re a very legalistic culture – that’s why so many of us become lawyers. The idea that individuals would take responsibility for themselves rather than obey the will of the group is a fearsome thought to a lot of Jewish people.”
But the JPFO say Jews should be the last people on Earth to support gun control, or even a register of gun owners: for thousands of years, Jews have been persecuted by those who denied them the right to arm themselves. Then Hitler passed the Nazi weapons law in 1938, disarming every Jew. Because all firearms had to be registered in Germany at that time, “they knew exactly whose house to go to”, Charles says. “Registration is confiscation. I hope you quote me on that directly.
“Today, acts of violent anti-Semitism are still very much with us, so Jews ought to know how to defend themselves with a firearm if necessary. When it comes to force, what other tool are you going to use? That’s the tool government will use.”
Surely if Obama was after the Jews he’d use armed drones and nuclear weapons, I say. Having a gun wouldn’t really help in that kind of situation.
Charles hesitates. “I will tell you that, um, they’re not the only ones who can have a drone,” he replies, eventually. “You can just as much have a drone as they can. And yours, because it comes from the private sector, will probably be more effective.”
Anyone considering the possibility of getting their own armed drone must be mighty scared. But Charles insists fear has no part in the JFPO’s motivation. “We’re an organisation that supports freedom. And it’s the fear of the anti-freedom people, who activate against our right to bear arms, that makes people flock to us.”
In the aftermath of high profile college shootings, you might expect students to be the one group of people united in their opposition to guns. But Students for Concealed Carry (SCC) want everyone on college campus to have the right to carry a weapon on them at all times. They say they have 43,000 students, professors and parents supporting them.
SCC was formed the day after the Virginia Tech massacre in 2007, when Kurt Mueller was a law student. “People had perceived college environments to be places where no harm can come to people,” he says. “The perpetrator of Virginia Tech had eight minutes before the police arrived. Eight minutes is a long time. A lot of people lost their lives, and we feel that might have been avoidable.”
There’s nothing hallowed or scared about places of learning that means guns should be banned, Kurt argues, and if the state law permits adults to carry concealed weapons elsewhere in public, they should be allowed to have them on campus, too. Otherwise students are being discriminated against.
A graphic from the Second Amendment Sisters website.
I wonder if students are actively afraid of another Virginia Tech. “These types of mass shootings are very rare,” Kurt replies, reassuringly. “My concern would be more in terms of everyday crime. If you’re getting out of class at 9.30 at night and have to walk across campus a mile to get to your car, there’s a long period of vulnerability there. Then you have to drive home. And if you aren’t allowed to have a firearm anywhere on campus, you can’t have one in your car. You’re vulnerable on campus and off campus when you stop at the grocery store.”
So they’re not scared of mass shootings, but they should be scared of going about their daily business. I’m seeing a common theme here.
Like Kurt, Jenn Coffey of the Second Amendment Sisters (SAS) – a women's advocacy group for the protection of gun rights – has done a lot of thinking about police response times.
“A rape occurs about every two minutes. It takes the average criminal 30 to 60 seconds to either put their hands on you and take off with you or to kill you. Until we’ve invented the teleporter, the police aren't going to get there fast enough to stop that criminal from doing harm,” she says. “Evil does exist. Everybody should be aware of crime, and everybody should be concerned by it.”
The SAS was formed in 1999 in response to the Million Mom March for tighter gun control. The founding members wanted the world to know that there were mums who wanted to hang on to their guns.
“We come from all ethnicities and walks of life,” Jenn tells me. “We’re women who believe we have a right to defend ourselves. I’m a mother, our president is a grandmother. We value our lives, we want to be there for our families, we want to protect our own children.”
For Jenn, protecting children means putting guns in classrooms – even elementary schools. “The mass shootings that have occurred in the US happened in places clearly designated as places where you could not have a firearm. Did it stop the criminal? No. It stopped the law-abiding citizen from being able to stop the criminal from taking out a lot of people’s lives. It was like shooting fish in a barrel,” she says. “I’m not saying that every American schoolteacher should carry, but I can think of a lot of great jobs for some of our returning servicemen and women.”
Jenn feels genuine pity for us in the UK with our gun laws. She asks if we’re just prepared to put up with it when someone is robbed or raped. “Is it simply an acceptable part of your society?”
I tell her I don’t think we have the same crime rate as the US – perhaps as a result of the fact guns are so hard to come by. But she doesn’t believe me at all. “I bet if we compared numbers, we’d probably come up with crime rates that were fairly similar. Criminals hell bent on doing evil don’t need a firearm. They can use a knife, a baseball bat, a flashlight.”
Yes. But you can’t kill a classroom full of kids with a flashlight.
As much as she loves her right to bear arms, Jenn insists she’s non-violent: she works as a paramedic, saving lives, and has never pulled a firearm on anyone in her life. “I hope to God that, when I leave this world, I never had to. But I know that I can if I need to. I wouldn’t want to stand there and watch my son taken away from me, in front of me, unable to do anything about it.”
She makes it sound terrifying to be an American woman, I say. “I don’t think people in America walk around in fear,” Jenn replies. “It's not about fear. It’s about preparedness. I have a fire extinguisher in my home. I hope I’ll never have to use it, but I’m prepared to be able to put out a fire if one starts in my home. I’m prepared to be able to defend myself should the need arise. It’s not fear. Do people not have fire extinguishers in your country?”
None of the special interest groups I spoke to would like me to describe them as afraid, but they all spent most of their time talking to me detailing how likely they are to be victimised. They see guns as a ticket to equality in country where the odds feel frighteningly stacked against them.
Fear is a very lucrative business. The American gun industry knows that very well. No matter how many laws Obama tries to pass, as long as Americans feel afraid, they’ll be clutching their weapons.
Follow Jenny on Twitter: @jennykleeman
More stuff about America's relationship with guns: